Her Eyes Weren’t Watching God: The Empathetic Secular Vision of Octavia Butler
June 22, 2017
There was one story Octavia E. Butler wouldn’t write. Reveling in science fiction/fantasy for an openness she saw lacking in other genres, Butler gave us gene-trading extraterrestrials, psionically powered mutants, a genetically engineered vampire, a reluctant time traveler forced to visit the brutal past of American slavery. Yet during her three-decades-long career as a novelist and short story writer, she never gave us a ghost story. She didn’t believe in ghosts. Raised as a born-again Baptist, Butler stopped believing in the afterlife and a celestial caretaker by age twelve. “Somehow you’re supposed to believe and have faith but not worry about having any evidence to support that belief and faith,” she said in a 1988 interview. “That just doesn’t work for me, and I never went back.”1 Coincidentally, at age twelve she began trying her hand at science fiction.
Many critical studies praise Butler’s novels and short stories for her innovative Black feminist perspective, beforehand unseen and unprecedented in science fiction. Few, if any, recognize the sophistication her atheist outlook brings to her storytelling. It was just as crucial as her Black feminist perspective in developing the social justice consciousness that won her work such high acclaim.
A popular—and admittedly secular—line of thinking in science fiction is that humanity will slough and discard its need for religion and faith, as logic, reasoning, and the empirical method will suffice as the enlightenment we need for our techno-bound future. The truth is that we’ve never had to worry about the speed and fury of our technological advancements; where we stand as far as social progress is concerned has always, regrettably, remained countless paces behind. How, then, do you guide human behavior to put the tools science offers us to good use? This is where Butler’s secular insight comes in.
As she graciously explained to a bumbling Charlie Rose in a 2000 interview, all societies have religions. Throughout history, civilizations have accomplished difficult, long-term, intensive projects, such as building cathedrals and holding countries together, with religion. It can be used as a tool, Butler said. In that sense, as she pointed out in a Locus Magazine interview, we could do with a little more religion.
More religion? Initially, I balked at this idea. An atheist since my late teens, I didn’t understand how Butler, who’d gone on record saying she used to despise religion, would come to its defense. As a stalwart fan of hers, I wondered if she was contradicting herself. But as I reread her entire oeuvre later as a god-free adult, I realized as she had that to dismiss religion altogether would be arrogant and foolhardy. So much of Western cultural patrimony derives from our faith traditions. Case in point: the Black church has been the backbone and haven of the Black community in the face of discriminatory legislation. Butler mentioned that religion kept her relatives alive, sustaining them through hardship when suicide seemed the best route out of suffering, because it offers the comfort and foundation of community.
Throughout her fiction you can trace how Butler explored the importance of community in all its complicated incarnations. In her Patternist series, her telepaths, fractious and hellbent on one-upping each other in dominance, are psionically linked to take full command of the planet and their indentured mutes (non-telepaths). The space-faring, tentacled Oankali of her Xenogenesis trilogy are compelled and united by their biological determination to crossbreed with whatever species they encounter with the aim of avoiding evolutionary dead-ends. For human protagonist Lilith Iyapo and the others rescued by and conscripted in the Oankali’s genetic engineering, this comes at the expense of forfeiting their humanity in their offspring. In Kindred, Butler’s protagonist, Dana, finds community in the antebellum-era enslaved Blacks of the Weylin plantation. In each visit to the past, Dana learns from them what Butler dubs the period-appropriate “rules of submission” to ensure her existence in 1976.
What’s the common cause shared by these communities? Survival—or, as Butler later called it, species insurance.
Butler’s concept of species insurance and community truly comes into focus through her secular lens in her Parables series. Earthseed, the godless religion created by protagonist Lauren Olamina, gathers believers and disciples across the racial spectrum. Its central tenet states that change is constant; to survive the post-apocalyptic setting of the novels, it’s imperative for Earthseed followers to always adapt to change. Lauren, like Butler, does not believe in life after death. She does, however, believe in her mission to direct humankind’s attention away from self-destruction in the midst of rampant drought caused by climate change, socioeconomic disparity, and high crime. What better way to accomplish that than with a new religion (a tool!) that supports interstellar travel? By the end of the first book, Parable of the Sower, Lauren forms her first Earthseed community. By the end of the sequel, Parable of the Talents, the first Earthseed expedition takes off to the stars to establish an extrasolar colony.
With its underlying message of community building and grassroots organizing through god-free faith, it’s no wonder the Parable books—notably Parable of the Sower—caught the attention of the MacArthur Foundation. They awarded her with the “genius” grant in 1995. In an example of life imitating art, Earthseed inspired the foundation of real-life social movement SolSeed. Folk-blues musician and composer Toshi Reagon collaborated with her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, to adapt Parable of the Sower as a folk opera in 2015. The message of Butler’s social consciousness continues to resonate.
In her work, you won’t find the militant brand of atheism endorsed by the likes of Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, or Sam Harris. Their flagrant hostility toward religion, in particular Dawkins’s against Islam, only pigeonholes them into a fundamentalist ghetto that marks them as intolerant as the fundamentalist believers they rail at. Butler’s atheism was never a rabid middle finger flipped at organized religion. She critiqued fundamentalism in Parable of the Talents by dramatizing the rise of a neo-fascist Christian movement that attacks Lauren’s community. But she never demonized faith. Instead, her empathetic brand of secularism calls for tolerance, long-term collaboration, and the embrace of multiculturalism.
In a 1977 New York Times interview, Toni Morrison said, “Black people believe in magic . . . . It’s part of our heritage.” Not all of us do, least of all Octavia Butler. That doesn’t exclude her from our heritage. I would be remiss for not pointing out that Butler’s unbelief and literary accolades place her in the legacy of atheist and agnostic Black intellectuals and artists whose output has made singular contributions to Black and American culture: W. E. B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright2. Today’s contemporaries include science fiction grandmaster Samuel R. Delany (Butler’s instructor at the Clarion workshop and close friend), Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Her eyes may not have been watching God, but they were watching the stars, envisioning the closest extrasolar worlds where humankind could take root, the future of a more compassionate and inclusive society. Not much fanfare, to my estimation, has celebrated this fact, which is why today, on the day that would have been her seventieth birthday, I’m tooting the party horn.
- McCaffery, Larry and Jim McMenamin. “An Interview with Octavia E. Butler.” Conversations with Octavia Butler. University Press of Mississippi. 2010. Ed. Consuela Francis. 17.
- Zuckerman, Phil. Living the Secular Life. Penguin Press, New York. 2014. 119.
About the Author
Christian Coleman is the digital marketing associate at Beacon Press and editor of Beacon Broadside. Before joining Beacon, he worked in writing, copy editing, and marketing positions at Sustainable Silicon Valley and Trikone. He graduated from Boston College and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. Follow him on Twitter at @coleman_II.